Viewer's Guide: Zaxby's Heart of Dallas Bowl

December, 26, 2014
Dec 26
9:00
AM CT
Four things to watch in Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl, which kicks off at 1 p.m. ET (ESPN) Friday and features Illinois vs. Louisiana Tech:

Big Ten transfers versus Illinois: Two of Louisiana Tech's better players -- quarterback Cody Sokol and defensive end Houston Bates -- both competed in the B1G before transferring earlier this year to the Conference USA school. Bates actually played for Illinois before announcing in February he was moving to Louisiana Tech to be closer to his family. He was an All-B1G honorable mention last season, and he currently leads the Bulldogs with 5.5 sacks this season. Sokol played for Iowa last season but decided to move on after finding himself third on the depth chart, behind Jake Rudock and C.J. Beathard. Iowa confirmed his departure in March, and he didn’t need to sit out a year since he graduated in May. Sokol has thrown for 3,189 yards and passed for 29 touchdowns to 13 interceptions. He was named the Conference USA Newcomer of the Year.

Can Louisiana Tech’s offense be slowed down?: The Bulldogs’ offense didn’t crack the top 40 in rushing or passing, but it is ranked highly where it counts the most -- scoring. Louisiana Tech is No. 12 nationally by averaging 37.5 points per game, nearly twice what it scored last season (19.2 ppg). With an efficient red-zone offense -- Kenneth Dixon has 21 rushing touchdowns -- Louisiana Tech has also been scoring touchdowns at a greater percentage (71.7 percent of trips) than Alabama, Oregon, Florida State and Ohio State.

That’s not great news for Illinois, which struggles in just about every statistical category on defense. The Illini have the No. 115 red zone defense (89.6 percent), No. 112 total defense (464.3 ypg) and the No. 107 scoring defense (33.9 ppg). Plus, Louisiana Tech hasn’t lost a game all season when it scores 30 points. Its record stands at 7-0 when scoring 30 or more, and 1-5 when scoring less.

Two young, overlooked all-conference wideouts: Louisiana Tech sophomore Trent Taylor and Illinois freshman Mike Dudek each had just one FBS scholarship offer -- and they’re making quite a few teams regret not taking a closer look. (Fortunately for the Bulldogs and Illini, it just so happened that Taylor played high school football in Louisiana, and Dudek was from Illinois.)

Dudek was a first-team All-B1G selection and led the team with 65 catches, 965 yards and six touchdowns. He had 439 more receiving yards than the No. 2 target. Taylor found a spot on the second-team All-Conference USA and had 62 catches, 814 yards and nine touchdowns -- 338 more yards than the No. 2. You’re likely going to hear a lot more from these two receivers over the next few seasons, so it’s worth keeping an eye on them here.

Turnover battle: No team in the nation has forced more turnovers than Louisiana Tech. The Bulldogs have caused 25 interceptions and 15 fumble recoveries this season -- more than twice as many forced turnovers as Illinois -- and that opportunistic defense could pose problems for Tim Beckman’s squad.

Two Louisiana Tech defensive backs -- Xavier Woods and Adairius Barnes -- have five interceptions apiece. Illinois has forced just seven interceptions total. And, when it comes to turnover margin, there’s also obviously a big gap between these two teams. The Bulldogs are fifth nationally (plus-1.15 per game); Illinois is 75th (minus-0.17 per game).

Big Ten morning links

December, 19, 2014
Dec 19
7:00
AM CT
Bowl season is a tricky time for coaches to motivate players.

“You can grind guys up if you occupy them too much mentally,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said this week.

Read more from Fitzgerald and others Friday on ESPN.com about motivation in bowl season. His Wildcats, sitting home this month, would trade places with any of the 10 Big Ten bowl teams. And with that wonderful time of year to start on Saturday -- the first Big Ten bowl game is still a week away -- it makes sense to look at the factors motivating conference teams.

Here’s a ranking of Big Ten teams with the most for which to play in the postseason:

Ohio State (Allstate Sugar Bowl, vs. Alabama, Jan. 1): A clear leader in this category as the Big Ten representative in the College Football Playoff, the Buckeyes carry the weight of the league on their shoulders. What else is new? Ohio State is flagship program of the Big Ten under Urban Meyer, who had a lot to say Thursday about his team's daunting task against the Crimson Tide.

Michigan State (Goodyear Cotton Bowl, vs. Baylor, Jan. 1): The Spartans lost to a pair of playoff teams, yet they're largely forgotten nationally. A business trip to Texas to face Baylor, the next best thing to a playoff opponent, offers a chance for MSU to finish on a high note nearly equal last year's Rose Bowl win.

Minnesota (Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl, vs. Missouri, Jan. 1): A victory in Orlando would give the Golden Gophers a nine-win season for the first time since 2003 and the second time in more than a century, and it would represent the school's best two-year run in over 50 years. It won't come easy against the two-time SEC East champ. The Gophers must run the ball effectively, their bread and butter, now and in the future.

Penn State (New Era Pinstripe Bowl, vs. Boston College, Dec. 27): The Nittany Lions, exposed in the second half of this season for a lack of overall talent, can end on a high note in this much-awaited return to the postseason after a two-year bowl ban. A visit to New York against a regional recruiting rival heightens the stakes.

Rutgers (Quick Lane Bowl, vs. North Carolina, Dec. 26): The Scarlet Knights exceeded expectations to make it this far. After an inspiring comeback win over fellow Big Ten newcomer Maryland to close the regular season, confidence is high, though the uncertain injury status of star receiver Leonte Carroo threatens to put a damper on the excitement around this bowl trip.

Wisconsin (Outback Bowl, vs. Auburn, Jan. 1): Motivated by the embarrassment of a 59-point loss in the Big Ten title game, the Badgers got knocked down another step by the surprise departure of Gary Andersen. But the return of Paul Chryst has boosted the spirits of players, who will look to impress their new coach as he observes in Tampa. Against Auburn's multi-faceted offense, Wisconsin must use everything at its disposal, including QB Tanner McEvoy on the defensive side.

Nebraska (National University Holiday Bowl, vs. USC, Dec. 27): The Cornhuskers are also playing to catch the eye of a new coach, as Mike Riley figures to watch closely. Riley's new staff will start fresh though, so what happens in San Diego stays in San Diego. Still, Nebraska players, amid a dramatic exit from their former coach that has sparked more debate, want to provide a fond farewell for their old staff of assistant coaches.

Illinois (Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl, vs. Louisiana Tech, Dec. 26): With victories over Penn State and Northwestern to get bowl eligible, Illinois has won simply by making it this far. No marquee opponent awaits, and Dallas isn't exactly a winter paradise, though maybe the man of the hour, QB Reilly O'Toole, can rally the Fighting Illini once again.

Maryland (Foster Farms Bowl, vs. Stanford, Dec. 30): Did the Terrapins run out of gas in the second half against Rutgers? It was a long season, packed with several highlights, in Maryland's first season of Big Ten play. But a visit to face Stanford, which is coming off four consecutive major bowls, near its home turf, looks like another significant challenge for Randy Edsall's team.

Iowa (TaxSlayer Bowl, vs. Tennesssee, Jan. 2): The Hawkeyes need someone to step up, a habitual practice in the postseason, or they face a dull ending to a disappointing season that set up well in Iowa City.

Around the rest of the league:

Northwestern Wildcats season review

December, 17, 2014
Dec 17
1:00
PM CT
Our week-long review of the 2014 season for each Big Ten program rolls on with the Northwestern Wildcats.

Overview: No team in the Big Ten had as many zeniths and nadirs as Northwestern during the 2014 season. The Wildcats beat two ranked opponents and still managed to miss a bowl game. The season got off to an embarrassing start when the offense, in a 24-7 win, was outgained by Western Illinois after losses to Cal and Northern Illinois. Head coach Pat Fitzgerald challenged his players' toughness and got a three-game winning streak, capped by knocking off West Division champ Wisconsin. Fitzgerald's team also upset heavily-favored Notre Dame in South Bend with an entertaining 43-40 overtime victory. In between those wins, Northwestern's offense failed to reach 20 points in any of its four consecutive losses to Big Ten opponents. Some talented freshmen on both sides of the ball provided reasons for optimism, but the season ended on another low note by losing to in-state rival Illinois with a bowl trip on the line for both teams.

Offensive MVP: Of the group of rookies who stepped into big roles this season in Evanston, Illinois, running back Justin Jackson was easily the most impressive. Jackson became the second freshman at Northwestern to top 1,000 yards and finished the season with 1,187 and a team-high 10 touchdowns. He also led the offense in putting up 43 points at Notre Dame. His 149 rushing yards in that game were the most the Irish gave up to any player this season.

Defensive MVP: Safety and co-captain Ibraheim Campbell coordinated the Wildcats' secondary in his fourth and final season as a starter. His three interceptions this season brought his career total to 11, which is third all-time at Northwestern. He also tied for the Big Ten lead in forced fumbles this year with four. One of those gave the offense a chance to tie Notre Dame in the final 90 seconds of the fourth quarter. He ended the season with 54 tackles despite missing four games due to an injury in the middle of the season. The Wildcats went 1-3 during that stretch.

ESPN's Big Ten all-freshman team

December, 15, 2014
Dec 15
9:00
AM CT
The Big Ten doesn't put out an all-freshman team. But we do. Here are our picks for the top first-year players in the league in 2014:

Offense

QB: J.T. Barrett, Ohio State: Well, duh.

RB: Justin Jackson, Northwestern: In the year of the running back in the Big Ten, Jackson somewhat quietly produced 1,187 yards and 10 touchdowns as a true freshman.

RB: Curtis Samuel, Ohio State: He added to the Buckeyes' ridiculous array of skill players, running for 386 yards and six scores. Looks like a future star.

WR: Mike Dudek, Illinois: In another season, one in which a guy like Barrett doesn't put up mind-boggling stats, Dudek would have been the freshman of the year in the league. He should surpass 1,000 yards receiving in the Fighting Illini's bowl game.

WR: DaeSean Hamilton, Penn State: Though the Nittany Lions' offense struggled, Hamilton caught more passes (75) than any other Big Ten player and finished with 848 yards in the regular season.

WR/RB: Jalin Marshall, Ohio State: A versatile, speedy weapon who could come out of the backfield or fly into it, Marshall scored seven touchdowns on offense and one on punt returns. He's also the team's backup quarterback right now.

OL: Mason Cole, Michigan: The first Wolverine ever to start the opener at left tackle as a true freshman, Cole stayed there all season and showed a lot of promise with his excellent footwork and instincts.

OL: Brian Allen, Michigan State: The true freshman and brother of All-Big Ten center Jack Allen appeared in all 12 games, with one start at left guard.

OL: Billy Price, Ohio State: The redshirt freshman has started all 13 games as a guard for the Buckeyes.

OL: Andrew Nelson, Penn State: The Nittany Lions had their issues on the offensive line, but Nelson started every game at tackle -- including twice at left tackle -- and has a bright future.

OL: Christian DiLauro, Illinois: He filled in as the starting right tackle in the second half of the season for the Illini and helped them rally their way to a bowl game.

Defense

DL: Kemoko Turay, Rutgers: After a torrid start, the pass rushing specialist finished with 7.5 sacks. He also blocked a field goal against Michigan to preserve that victory.

DL: Malik McDowell, Michigan State: The blue-chip recruit whose signing day saga made headlines showed his talent by playing in all 12 games and recording 3.5 tackles for loss.

DL: Steven Richardson, Minnesota: Thrust into a starting role after the first week because of injuries, the true freshman more than held his own by finishing with 5.5 tackles for loss and two sacks.

LB: Darron Lee, Ohio State: After taking a medical redshirt last year, Lee emerged as one of the Buckeyes' top defensive playmakers, recording 66 tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss, two interceptions and a pair of fumble recoveries, one of which he scored on.

LB: Ja'Whan Bentley, Purdue: The Boilermakers' linebacker position has been a problem for the past few years, but Bentley is part of the solution. He was Purdue's second-leading tackler on the season with 76 stops, adding an interception and three fumble recoveries.

LB: Anthony Walker, Northwestern: In his first start against Penn State, Walker returned an interception 49 yards for a touchdown. He also had a pick in the win at Notre Dame and led the Wildcats with nine tackles for loss.

LB: Raekwon McMillan, Ohio State: Playing mostly in a reserve role, McMillan had an immediate impact on the Buckeyes. The former stud recruit recorded 50 tackles, 2.5 sacks and an interception.

DB: Eli Apple, Ohio State: It's scary how many star freshmen the Buckeyes have. Apple is another, as he had 41 tackles, including 5.5 for loss, and a pair of interceptions.

DB: Montae Nicholson, Michigan State: The true freshman played in every game and had three starts in the Spartans' "No Fly Zone." He had 30 tackles and a pair of fumble recoveries.

DB: Godwin Igwebuike, Northwestern: He made waves in the Wildcats' upset win over Wisconsin by grabbing three interceptions. He started five times at safety and finished with 51 tackles.

DB: Marcus Allen, Penn State: He started Penn State's final six games at safety after Ryan Keiser got hurt, and the Nittany Lions' defense didn't miss a beat. He was third on the team in tackles with 52.

Specialists

K: Rafael Gaglianone, Wisconsin: The effusive Brazilian with the strong leg went 17-for-20 on field goals, including 2-of-3 from beyond 50 yards.

P: Daniel Pasquariello, Penn State: His 37.7-yards per punt average was nothing to write home about -- except the Australian probably does write home a lot. He improved down the stretch to solidify the Nittany Lions' punt team.

Returner: De'Mornay Pierson-El, Nebraska: He was third in the FBS in punt-return average (17.8) and scored three touchdowns, including a memorable one in the comeback win at Iowa.

ESPN.com's All-Big Ten team

December, 12, 2014
Dec 12
9:00
AM CT
The Big Ten unveiled its official all-league teams last week, but we have our own thoughts and choices. Here is the ESPN.com All-Big Ten team for 2014:

Offense

QB: J.T. Barrett, Ohio State: Barrett broke the Big Ten single-season record for touchdowns produced with 45. He would have added to that total if not for a broken ankle in the regular-season finale vs. Michigan.

RB: Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin: All he did was lead the FBS in rushing, break the Big Ten single-season rushing record and earn the Big Ten’s offensive player of the year honors.

RB: Tevin Coleman, Indiana: Coleman joined Gordon as the only other player in the country to top 2,000 yards; he would have been a serious Heisman contender in another year or on a more successful team.

WR: Tony Lippett, Michigan State: The Big Ten’s receiver of the year led the league with 1,124 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns.

WR: Leonte Carroo, Rutgers: Carroo joined Lippett at over 1,000 yards and averaged 19.7 yards per catch.

TE: Maxx Williams, Minnesota: A John Mackey Award finalist, Williams was the Golden Gophers’ top receiver and crucial cog in their run game.

OT: Taylor Decker, Ohio State: Anchored a Buckeyes offensive line that developed into one of the league’s best over the course of the season.

OT: Brandon Scherff, Iowa: He was named the Big Ten offensive lineman of the year and is a surefire NFL first-round draft pick.

C: Jack Allen, Michigan State: The Spartans gave up fewer sacks (10) than any Big Ten club and had one of the league’s top offenses with Allen at the point of attack.

G: Kyle Costigan, Wisconsin: An ESPN All-American, Costigan helped pave the way for Gordon’s record-breaking runs.

G: Pat Elflein, Ohio State: He was a sturdy performer all season on the Buckeyes’ line as the offense scored at a rapid pace.

Defense

DE: Joey Bosa, Ohio State: The Big Ten defensive player of the year led the league in sacks (13.5) and tackles for loss (20) and tied for the lead with four forced fumbles.

DE: Shilique Calhoun, Michigan State: After a quiet start, Calhoun got back to his dominating ways and finished with 6.5 sacks.

DT: Anthony Zettel, Penn State: With eight sacks and 15 tackles for loss from the defensive tackle position, Zettel was the most disruptive interior lineman in the conference.

DT: Louis Trinca-Pasat, Iowa: LTP was a pleasant surprise for the Hawkeyes, leading the team with 11 tackles for loss and adding 6.5 sacks.

LB: Mike Hull, Penn State: Hull was the Big Ten linebacker of the year and led the league with 134 tackles.

LB: Jake Ryan, Michigan: Ryan turned in a strong senior season with 112 tackles and 14 tackles for loss.

LB: Derek Landisch, Wisconsin: Any one of the Badgers’ four “Chevy Bad Boys” linebackers could have made the first team, but Landisch led the team with nine sacks and 16 tackles for loss.

DB: William Likely, Maryland: A big-play machine, Likely grabbed six interceptions and scored touchdowns on two of them.

DB: Briean Boddy-Calhoun, Minnesota: Like Likely, he was always in the middle of the action with four picks and a key strip late to seal the Nebraska win.

DB: Trae Waynes, Michigan State: Probably the best pure cover guy in the league, Waynes is asked to do a whole lot as the point man in the Spartans' "No Fly Zone."

DB: Michael Caputo, Wisconsin: Caputo was the leader from his safety spot for a defense that was the best in the league during the regular season; he finished with 99 tackles.

Specialists

K: Brad Craddock, Maryland: The Big Ten kicker of the year made his first 18 field goals this season, including a 57-yarder and a game-winner at Penn State.

P: Peter Mortell, Minnesota: Mortell was a field-position weapon for the Gophers, leading the league with a 45.5-yard average per attempt

PR: De'Mornay Pierson-El, Nebraska: The freshman scored three touchdowns on punt returns and had a preposterous 17.8 yard average for the season.

All-purpose: Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska: We had to find a spot for Abdullah on the team, and since he returned kicks and was extremely versatile as a running back, this seemed like a good spot.

Big Ten morning links

December, 12, 2014
Dec 12
8:00
AM CT
Wisconsin survived its first full day since way back in 2012 without a head coach, though the search to replace Gary Andersen -- set to to be introduced Friday at Oregon State -- appears set end quickly.

The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported Thursday night that the school is prepared to hire Pitt coach Paul Chryst, a former UW quarterback and offensive coordinator.

It’s a delicate situation, of course, for the Badgers, the uprooted assistant coaches and their families -- not to be taken lightly. But perhaps the most interesting byproduct of Andersen’s unexpected departure is the news that Barry Alvarez will coach Wisconsin in its bowl game. Again.

Alvarez, the 67-year-old athletic director and Hall of Fame former coach of 16 years in Madison, led the Badgers in the 2013 Rose Bowl, a six-point loss to Stanford, after Bret Bielema bolted to Arkansas.

Alvarez ought to just coach the Badgers in every bowl game. In fact, other legends should follow suit and rejoin their former programs on the sideline in the postseason. Surely, the NCAA would allow a special 10th coach. If not, just make them interns.

Let’s bring back Bobby Bowden, Lou Holtz, Mack Brown (too soon?), Don Nehlen, Lavell Edwards, Hayden Fry, Barry Switzer and, if Indiana can get to six wins, Bill Mallory.

Yes, I’m joking. Slightly more serious about this, though: Nebraska has an opening on its staff for the Holiday Bowl. How about Tom Osborne? If Alvarez can go from the College Football Playoff selection committee to the sideline, why not Osborne?

Yeah, he’s 77, served three stints in Congress, lost a gubernatorial primary in Nebraska -- did that really happen? -- and spent five years as athletic director since coaching his last game, a resounding win over Peyton Manning and Tennessee in the 1998 Orange Bowl.

But Osborne has perhaps never watched more college football than in this season. He must have some ideas on how the Huskers could surprise USC. One more fumblerooski up his sleeve.

What an experience it would be for Barney Cotton, long loyal to Nebraska, to have the ex-coach at his side. Cotton played under Osborne from 1975-78, then sent his three sons to Nebraska. It could also be a meaningful sendoff for Ron Brown, the Nebraska running backs coach who worked alongside Osborne in the legendary coach’s final 11 seasons.

Might help a bit with ticket sales, too, and inject a little spice into a game that means a great deal to several Huskers who want to honor their former coach, Bo Pelini, but realistically, little to the forward movement of the program.

Alvarez played linebacker for Bob Devaney on Nebraska teams of the 1960s that included Osborne as an offensive assistant. If Barry can do it, so can Tom.

Alas, it’s unrealistic. Osborne would likely never thrust himself into the spotlight in such a way. But just let me dream.

Thursday in Lake Buena Vista, Florida...

Lots of hardware

What a night on the Disney Boardwalk at the College Football Awards Show. The Big Ten had a good showing, as Iowa offensive tackle Brandon Scherff won the Outland Trophy, presented to the nation's top interior lineman; Maryland's Brad Craddock took home the Lou Groza Award as the top place-kicker; and Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon beat finalists Tevin Coleman of Indiana and Ameer Abdullah of Nebraska for the Doak Walker Award, given to the best running back.

Arizona linebacker Scooby Wright won the Bednarik Award, given to the best defensive player. Ohio State defensive end Joey Bosa was among the finalists.

Also, Nebraska wide receiver Jordan Westerkamp won a vote for college football's play of the year for his behind-the-back catch in the season opener.

Around the league:

West Division
  • As expected, Gordon plans to leave after this season for the NFL.
  • Some confusion exists over Iowa's starting quarterback for the TaxSlayer Bowl.
  • A meeting with Missouri in the Citrus Bowl is a "big step" for Minnesota, according to coach Jerry Kill.
  • One of Purdue's recent football brings a French flavor, by way of a California junior college.
  • Northwestern needs to make changes, writes Teddy Greenstein, but will it happen?
  • The competition continues at Illinois during bowl practices.
East Division
  • Urban Meyer and Nick Saban have already met once in a playoff. They sat side by side Thursday and recalled the 2009 SEC championship game.
  • No surprise that Michigan wide receiver Devin Funchess did not meet his own expectations this year.
  • The explanation of playoff committee chair Jeff Long on Mississippi State's final-week jump over Michigan State does not erase flaws in the process, writes Graham Couch.
  • Indiana lands UAB receiver Marqui Hawkins but misses a juco QB target.
  • Freshman quarterback Michael O'Connor is leaving Penn State.
  • Maryland coach Randy Edsall, in San Francisco on Thursday, to discuss the Terps' matchup with Stanford, says receiver Stefon Diggs will play in the Foster Farms Bowl.
  • The salary pool for Rutgers' assistant coaches ranks eighth in the Big Ten.

B1G bowl season: News, notes & nuggets

December, 9, 2014
Dec 9
1:30
PM CT
Here's a look at the news and notes surrounding each Big Ten team and its respective bowl:

Ohio State (Allstate Sugar Bowl): Urban Meyer and Nick Saban met three times between 2008 and 2010, with the Tide winning the first two meetings. Meyer’s Florida Gators won, 31-20, in the last meeting. … According to the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook, Ohio State would be favored over Florida State -- but it would be an underdog against Alabama, Oregon, TCU, Baylor, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Auburn and Oklahoma. … Meyer is one of eight finalists for the Eddie Robinson Coach of the Year Award and one of three finalists for the Maxwell Coach of the Year. … Alabama teams that have been ranked in the top 2 of the AP poll are 5-1 in bowl games in New Orleans and boast six national championships. … Ohio State slightly trailed both Baylor and TCU in game control (No. 8) and strength of W-L (No. 6) but had the advantage in strength of schedule (No. 45). Baylor was No. 59 in that category, while TCU was No. 53.

Michigan State (Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic): The Spartans extended a school record this season with their eighth straight bowl appearance. That is the second-longest streak in the Big Ten and the 13th longest in the country. … Michigan State has won its past three bowl games -- against Georgia, TCU and Stanford -- which is also a school record. It’s also the longest active bowl winning streak in the conference. … Michigan State has made 25 bowls in its history, but it’s never been to the Cotton Bowl, which dates back to 1937. … According to the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook, Michigan State would’ve been favored over Florida State if it had made the playoff.

Minnesota (Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl): The Gophers last played a January bowl game in 1962, when it beat UCLA, 21-3, in the Rose Bowl. … This is Minnesota’s 17th bowl appearance, but it will be just the second time it plays in Florida. … Jerry Kill became just the second coach to guide Minnesota to three straight bowl games. (Glen Mason was the other.) … ESPN.com conducted a September poll by asking coaches: Who would you want your son to play for? Kill tied Stanford’s David Shaw for third with 7 percent of the vote.

Wisconsin (Outback Bowl): Wisconsin has now made 13 straight bowl games -- the seventh-longest streak in the country -- with the past five taking place in January. … The Badgers have played in the Outback Bowl four other times. They’ve lost the past three (to Georgia twice and to Tennessee). … If Melvin Gordon scores one more TD, he would join Barry Sanders and Kevin Smith as the only players with 2,000 yards and 30 TDs in a single season. … Gordon needs just seven rushing yards to surpass USC’s Marcus Allen (2,342 yards) and move into third on the single-season rushing list.

Nebraska (National University Holiday Bowl): This is the Huskers' 51st bowl appearance, the third most in the nation, and their seventh straight appearance. … Mike Riley was named the new head coach Dec. 4 but will not coach in the game. Interim coach Barney Cotton will. … USC and Nebraska have met four other times, including a 2006 and 2007 home-and-home series, and the Trojans hold a 3-0-1 advantage.

Iowa (TaxSlayer Bowl): Since 2001, no Big Ten team has won more bowl games or has a higher bowl winning percentage than Iowa. The Hawkeyes are 6-5 during that time. … Under Kirk Ferentz, Iowa is 4-2 against current SEC teams in bowl games. … Iowa last played in the TaxSlayer Bowl in 1983 (then known as the Gator Bowl), when it lost to Florida by a score of 14-6.

Maryland (Foster Farms Bowl): This will be the first meeting between Maryland and Stanford. … The Terrapins are the biggest underdog in the conference this postseason, as Stanford is a two-touchdown favorite. … Maryland is 11-12-2 all time in bowls but has won five of its past seven. … Maryland last appeared in San Francisco to face Oregon State in the Emerald Bowl in 2007. It lost 21-14.

Penn State (New Era Pinstripe Bowl): This is the first time the Nittany Lions will be playing in the new Yankee Stadium, but they played three times previously in the old stadium. Of course, that last trip was quite a while ago -- Penn State last played there in 1929 when it lost to NYU, 7-0. … This is Penn State’s 45th bowl game, tied for ninth most in the nation. … The Lions’ defense is one of just two that ranked in the top 10 this season in all of the following categories: rushing defense (No. 1), total defense (No. 2), scoring defense (No. 8), pass efficiency defense (No. 2) and defensive third-down conversion percentage (No. 6).

Rutgers (Quick Lane Bowl): This is the ninth bowl appearance in 10 seasons for Rutgers. Prior to the 2005 season, the Knights had played in just one bowl (1978) in school history. … Kyle Flood is the first coach in school history to lead Rutgers to a bowl in his first three seasons. … The Quick Lane is one of five new bowl games in this year’s lineup. … Player gifts for the bowl include a Fathead made in each participant’s likeness; the winner also gets a $25,000 locker room makeover.

Illinois (Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl): This is Illinois’ first bowl appearance since 2011 and the 18th in program history. Illinois’ bowl record is 8-9 overall. … The Illini are one of just two Big Ten teams with a bowl winning streak – the other is Michigan State – as Illinois won the 2010 Texas Bowl (over Baylor) and the 2011 Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl (over UCLA). … Tim Beckman’s squad has posted five comebacks on the year, and four wins came after trailing in the fourth quarter.
ILLINOIS FIGHTING ILLINI (6-6) vs. LOUISIANA TECH BULLDOGS (8-5)
DEC. 26, 1 P.M. ET, DALLAS, COTTON BOWL (ESPN)

ILLINOIS BREAKDOWN

Season highlights: After spending virtually the entire year on the hot seat and answering questions about his job status, Tim Beckman rallied the Illini to consecutive wins over Penn State and Northwestern over the final two weeks of the regular season to earn a bowl bid. Even before climbing back into the postseason picture, Illinois had shown signs of improvement with a significant upset over Minnesota in October. Without that victory, the narrow win over the Nittany Lions and the offensive explosion against the Wildcats wouldn’t have been enough to make any travel plans this month.

Season lowlights: Defense is still an issue for Illinois, and for the most part, all it took was a decent offense to make that painfully obvious. During a brutal three-week stretch in the middle of the year, the Illini allowed 45 points to Nebraska, 38 to Purdue and 38 to Wisconsin while dropping each of those contests -- which only inflamed the doubts about Beckman’s ability to lead the program into the future.

Player to watch: If he’s not yet a familiar name outside of the Big Ten, get ready to hear plenty about true freshman wide receiver Mike Dudek. There was preseason buzz that Dudek could be a dangerous target in the slot in the mold of Wes Welker for the Illini, and he lived up that billing with 69 receptions for 965 yards and six touchdowns to explode on the conference scene.

Motivation factor: After getting kicked around early and facing plenty of tough questions about the future of the program, Illinois has a chance to finish with a winning record and claim a trophy in the process. Rolling into the postseason with some momentum after back-to-back wins doesn’t hurt, either, and the Illini figure to be fired up and ready to play after they could have folded in November. -- Austin Ward

vs.
LOUISIANA TECH BREAKDOWN

Season highlights: It wasn’t the end Louisiana Tech was looking for, losing to Marshall in the Conference USA title game. The Bulldogs had won six of seven coming into that game, and they clinched the division with a 76-31 rout over Rice the week before. Quarterback Cody Sokol and the offense led the way in that game, but the defense has been just as good down the stretch. Louisiana Tech leads the nation with 40 takeaways on the season.

Season lowlights: Louisiana Tech won eight games, beating five bowl eligible teams along the way, but there’s no explanation for its early-season loss to FCS foe Northwestern State. The Bulldogs blew a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter and while it didn’t affect their conference record or chance at a bowl game, it was still an embarrassing loss. They also coughed up a lead to Old Dominion later in the season, losing that game in overtime.

Player to watch: If you’re looking for a safe bet in the bowl game, bet on Kenneth Dixon getting into the end zone. He’s scored a touchdown in every game but one, the season opener at Oklahoma, and he’s top 10 nationally with 21 touchdowns on the season. In his last four games, Dixon has rushed for 478 yards and 10 touchdowns. He’s averaging over 6 yards per carry during that span. At that pace, the junior is likely moving up draft boards as a potential sleeper pick if he decides to come out early.

Motivation factor: It might be tough for this Louisiana Tech team to get up after the crushing loss to Marshall in the conference championship, but this is only the fourth bowl game in the past 20 years for the Bulldogs. They will be ready to put the Marshall game behind them and end the season on a high note, regardless of the opponent. -- Greg Ostendorf
MARSHALL THUNDERING HERD (12-1) vs. NORTHERN ILLINOIS HUSKIES (11-2)
DEC. 23, 6 P.M. ET, FAU STADIUM, BOCA RATON, FLA. (ESPN)


MARSHALL BREAKDOWN

Season highlights: The Thundering Herd reeled off 11 straight wins and were one of only two unbeaten teams in the FBS heading into Week 14. They made their first appearance that week in the College Football Playoff rankings at No. 24, fueling hope that they might earn the Group of 5 spot in a New Year’s Six bowl game. Until a narrow road victory over UAB and then an upset loss to Western Kentucky in the regular-season finale, Marshall had beaten opponents by an average of more than 30 points per game. The Herd rebounded from the Western Kentucky loss by beating Louisiana Tech in the Conference USA championship game.

Season lowlights: There weren’t many, one to be exact: the 67-66 overtime loss at home to Western Kentucky to put a damper on the regular season. The Herd trailed 42-21 in the second quarter but charged back to tie the game at 59 at the end of regulation. They scored a touchdown on their possession of overtime, but the Hilltoppers answered with a touchdown and then won the game with a successful 2-point conversion. Not only did the upset loss ruin Marshall’s dream of an unbeaten season, but it also eliminated any chance of the Herd playing in a New Year’s Six bowl game.

Player to watch: Senior quarterback Rakeem Cato put up eye-popping numbers for the second straight season on his way to breaking Chad Pennington’s school passing records. Cato enters the bowl game having thrown a touchdown pass in an FBS-record 45 straight games. He has passed for 3,622 yards and 37 touchdowns this season and is the only Marshall quarterback in history to throw 30 or more touchdowns in three seasons. The 6-foot-1, 176-pound Cato isn’t big, but he has a big arm for a guy his size, throws the deep ball with pinpoint accuracy and is a fierce competitor.

Motivation factor: The knock on the Herd all season was that they played a soft schedule and weren’t as good as their record indicated, which is why they wanted to get a shot at a Power 5 team in a bigger bowl. They eased some of the pain of losing their unbeaten season by winning the Conference USA championship but would like to further validate themselves by winning a second straight bowl game after taking down Maryland a year ago in the Military Bowl.
-- Chris Low

vs.
NORTHERN ILLINOIS BREAKDOWN

Season highlights: The Huskies just keep rolling along in the MAC, appearing in their fifth consecutive conference title game even after losing Heisman Trophy finalist Jordan Lynch last season. Rod Carey’s club survived a few close calls along the way to its latest postseason appearance, including a narrow win over a struggling Kent State squad. But Northern Illinois knocked off Big Ten member Northwestern early in the season to prove once again that it could compete outside of the league, and it closed the regular season with a six-game winning streak.

Season lowlights: There are only two regular-season losses to pick from for the Huskies, and it’s clear which one will stick with them when they look back at another double-digit win season under Carey. Arkansas proved it was no joke by the end of the season, but getting flattened 52-14 never feels good for a program that has built a respectable reputation for punching above its weight like Northern Illinois has over the past few seasons.

Player to watch: There is no Heisman campaign this year, but wide receiver Da'Ron Brown is certainly worthy of some attention after the senior turned in the finest season of his career to get the Huskies back to the MAC title game. Brown hauled in 64 catches for 1,002 yards, a sparkling average of 15.7 yards per catch, and he chipped in seven total touchdowns along the way.

Motivation factor: With a program intent on proving it should be viewed as more than just the class of a lower-echelon league, Northern Illinois could use a bowl victory to help make that case. The Huskies came up short in both of their chances over the past two seasons, with last year’s loss to Utah State in particular dealing them a bit of a credibility blow. Carey and his club will certainly want to make some amends for that this time around.
-- Austin Ward

Big Ten Power Rankings: Week 15

December, 7, 2014
Dec 7
10:00
AM CT

Big Ten bowl projections: Week 15

December, 7, 2014
Dec 7
2:43
AM CT
Thought bowl projections were over? So did we. But we've got one more edition for you, hours before the selections become official. What fun for all.

As ESPN.com first reported this week, the Big Ten could have a bowl-eligible team miss a bowl. If a Big Ten team goes to the Capital One Orange Bowl, the league won't have a participant in the Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl. And if only one other Big Ten team reaches a New Year's Six bowl, it will leave eight eligible teams for only seven spots. Since there are more bowl-eligible teams than spots, and all spots are contracted, there are no at-large selections this year.

Got all that?

Michigan State is virtually assured of an Orange Bowl berth, following Alabama's win against Missouri in the SEC championship. At No. 8, the Spartans should remain ahead of No. 10 Mississippi State in Sunday's rankings -- neither team played this week -- and therefore be the highest ranked non-champion from the Big Ten or SEC.

Big Ten champion Ohio State is the only other league squad heading for the big bowls -- either a Playoff semifinal or a New Year's Six game. After the Buckeyes' 59-0 spanking of Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship, we project Urban Meyer's squad to the Playoff. Boom.

That means one eligible Big Ten team is out of the bowls. Although Penn State and Illinois both are 6-6 and the Fighting Illini beat the Nittany Lions, there's no way PSU misses a bowl after being banned the past two years. Illinois, unfortunately, is the odd team out.

Wisconsin's horrific performance in the Big Ten title game drops the Badgers down to the Holiday Bowl, which really, really wants Gary Andersen's team. Minnesota heads to the Outback Bowl, while Nebraska likely would go to the Music City Bowl to avoid a repeat in Jacksonville.

Penn State in the Pinstripe has been a likelihood for weeks, and we have Rutgers going to Detroit and Maryland to Dallas.

Here are our final, final Big Ten bowl projections for the season:

College Football Playoff semifinal (Rose Bowl Game Presented By Northwestern Mutual or Allstate Sugar Bowl): Ohio State
Capital One Orange: Michigan State
Outback: Minnesota
National University Holiday: Wisconsin
TaxSlayer Bowl/Franklin American Mortgage Music City: Nebraska
Foster Farms: Iowa
New Era Pinstripe: Penn State
Quick Lane: Rutgers
Zaxby's Heart of Dallas: Maryland

Big Ten morning links

December, 2, 2014
Dec 2
7:00
AM CT
Good morning, Big Ten fans. Looks as if we might be in store for an interesting day ...

1. Writing on the wall for Brady Hoke?: It sure seems that way. Our Dan Murphy reported that Hoke will meet with the athletic director at 2 p.m. Tuesday, which just so happens to come before a 3 p.m. meeting with the players. It’d definitely be odd if no decision was made to keep or fire Hoke by then. But, then again, stranger things have happened -- like a 5-7 season by Michigan, for instance. Stay tuned ... we could have an answer soon.

2. And the Big Ten Coach of the Year is ...: The conference will announce the winner of the McClain/Hayes-Schembechler Trophy on Tuesday night, and it’s really the only award up for debate. I picked Urban Meyer in the preseason -- really, the only good preseason pick I made -- and I think he deserves to win over Jerry Kill. The Buckeyes didn’t have 2013’s leading quarterback, running back or wideout, but their offense was still arguably the best in the conference. If Meyer doesn’t get the trophy this year, then Buckeyes fans are right: An Ohio State coach is never getting this award.

3. Wideout questions on the All-B1G team: Both the coaches and the media agreed Tony Lippett belonged on the first team -- that was a total no-brainer -- but there was no common ground to be found with the other picks here. The coaches liked Kenny Bell on the first team, with Stefon Diggs and Devin Funchess on the second team. The media preferred Leonte Carroo on the first, with Mike Dudek and DaeSean Hamilton on the second. Count me among the camp that especially thinks Carroo was snubbed by the coaches; the Rutgers wideout was second in B1G receiving yards (1,043) and second in receiving TDs (10). Surely, he deserved at least a second-team nod by the coaches. Funchess' inclusion was the biggest shocker, in my opinion, because he disappeared for long stretches during the season. Three of his four TDs came in the first game, after all. Give me Lippett, Carroo and Dudek ... and I’ll let Diggs and Hamilton fight it out for the last spot.

Now, on to the links ...

Big Ten championship
East Division
  • Mark Dantonio has previously felt -- and overcome -- heat from Michigan State fans.
  • Sanctions helped to sink Penn State to 6-6, writes the Reading Eagle's Rich Scarcella.
West Division
  • Firing Pelini has fueled reflection for Iowa, which hasn't beaten an FBS program with a winning record this season.

Weekend rewind: Big Ten

December, 1, 2014
Dec 1
9:00
AM CT
The 2014 Big Ten regular season is in the books. The league championship game arrives this season, and soon we’ll be looking forward to bowl games for 10 of the conference’s 14 teams. But first, let’s rewind a wild and wacky Week 14:

Team of the week: Illinois. Tim Beckman has gotten a lot of grief in his short tenure in Champaign, but he led the Illini to three Big Ten wins in their final five regular-season games. That was capped by Saturday’s dominant 47-33 victory at Northwestern that secured the program’s first bowl berth since 2011. It also ensured that Beckman will be back to coach the team next year.

[+] EnlargeDevin Gardner
Greg Bartram/USA TODAY SportsThe well-being of J.T. Barrett was on the mind of Michigan's Devin Gardner on Saturday.
Biggest play: J.T. Barrett’s injury may unfortunately be one of the biggest plays of the Big Ten’s season since it could affect Ohio State’s ability to get into the playoff. But with Barrett out and Michigan still hanging around, Ezekiel Elliott helped keep the Buckeyes alive for a playoff bid with a 44-yard touchdown run that finally broke the Wolverines’ back.

Big Man on Campus (offense): Gary Nova led the largest comeback in Rutgers’ history by throwing for 347 yards and four touchdowns, with no interceptions, in a wild 41-38 win over Maryland. It’s been an up and down year for Nova, but he helped his offensive coordinator, Ralph Friedgen, gain a measure of revenge on the Terrapins.

Big Man on Campus (defense): Wisconsin linebacker Marcus Trotter had arguably his finest game on Senior Day at Camp Randall Stadium, finishing with 14 tackles as the Badgers held Minnesota to just one score in the second half.

Big Man on Campus (special teams): Nebraska’s De’Mornay Pierson-El fueled the Huskers’ comeback win at Iowa with two long punt returns, including an 80-yard touchdown that gave Nebraska its first lead. He averaged 44.7 yards on three returns. That’s pretty good.

Biggest hangover: Maryland had a chance to finish out a pretty strong 8-4 debut season in the Big Ten. Instead, the Terrapins -- who led Rutgers 35-10 in the final minute of the first half -- collapsed in epic fashion at home. Now, the other league newbie can lord this win over them for a full year.

Best gesture: When Barrett was being loaded onto a cart after his ankle injury, Michigan’s Devin Gardner came over to him console him. The classy move transcended this otherwise bitter rivalry.

“It was sort of like having a little brother get hurt," Gardner said. "I didn't like to see that at all, so I just let him know that I'm praying for him and told him to keep praying, and that everything will be alright."

Fun with numbers: Speaking of Pierson-El, his 589 punt return yards are 232 more than the next closest player in the FBS, and his nine returns of more than 20 yards are also the most in the country. … Rutgers’ Janarion Grant, whose 71-yard kickoff return to open the second half at Maryland led to a touchdown, leads the nation in total kickoff return yards with 910. … With two more sacks on Saturday, Ohio State’s Joey Bosa is just one away from breaking Vernon Gholston’s school record of 14. And Bosa has promised to do a backflip if he breaks the mark, which could come as early as this Saturday. … Barry Sanders Watch: Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon needs 368 yards in his final two games to break Sanders' single-season FBS rushing record of 2,628. ... Indiana’s Tevin Coleman became the fourth-fastest player to reach 2,000 yards in a season. … Michigan State has now won 10 straight Big Ten road games after beating Penn State 34-10. That’s the fourth-longest active conference road winning streak in the FBS.

Big Ten Power Rankings: Week 14

November, 30, 2014
Nov 30
2:00
PM CT

Big Ten helmet stickers: Week 14

November, 30, 2014
Nov 30
8:00
AM CT
Rewarding the best and brightest performances during the final week of the regular season in the Big Ten:

Rutgers QB Gary Nova: Four touchdown passes from Nova led the way during a 28-point comeback against Maryland Saturday afternoon, leading the Scarlet Knights to a 41-38 win. Nova threw for 347 yards and, more importantly, none of his 42 pass attempts landed in the arms of Terrapins defensive backs.

Ohio State RB Ezekiel Elliott: The sophomore will have to carry a big load without J.T. Barrett next weekend. He got off to a good start in the fourth quarter with a 44-yard touchdown on a crucial fourth-down play against Michigan, helping Ohio State win 42-28. Elliott finished the day with 121 yards and two scores.

Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon: Gordon takes his normal place among the Big Ten’s top performers this week. He was the heart of the Badgers offense again while they clinched the West Division with a 34-24 win over Minnesota. He ran for 151 yards and a touchdown on 29 carries.

Illinois QB Reilly O'Toole: Talk about balance, O’Toole ran for 147 yards and passed for 147 yards to help the Fighting Illini reach the bowl eligibility plateau for the first time under Tim Beckman with a 47-33 victory over Northwestern. O’Toole accounted for three touchdowns for an offense that scored 47 points against the Wildcats.

Nebraska WR Kenny Bell: Bell caught only three passes during the Cornhuskers' 37-34 comeback win Friday, but he made them count. He started a third-quarter comeback by sneaking behind the Iowa defense for a 32-yard touchdown catch. He finished the comeback in overtime when he shed a defender and caught the game-winning pass in the front corner of the end zone.

Michigan State WR/CB Tony Lippett: The Spartans’ first two-way starter in four decades contributed on both sides of the ball Saturday. He caught four passes for 53 yards and a touchdown during a 34-10 win over Penn State. He also made one tackle and contributed to a secondary that held the Nittany Lions under 200 yards passing.

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